Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Writer: Peter West, David Groom, Brian Trenchard-Smith
Cast: Edward John Stazak, John Stanton, James Richards, Michael Carman, Paris Jefferson, Linda Megier
The random, nameless henchman is arguably the most disposable element in the action film. His primary on-screen function is to get tossed, kicked, punched, or otherwise maimed in some quick and decisive fashion by one of the film’s heroes. The visual impacts of most henchmen range from “I’m pretty sure that was a dummy falling off that parking garage” to “I had those same Zubaz pants in high school.” Given the volume of henchmen in these types of movies, the master catalog of quirky appearances is a long one. You can safely add the thugs from 1988’s Day of the Panther to that list. In fact, the scene involving Guy in Boar Mask, Guy in Balding Old Man Mask, and Guy in Skull Mask might be the most memorable part of the movie.
This is the first Australian production we’ve covered and fortunately, we’re in good hands with ace action director Brian Trenchard-Smith at the helm. Does the film offer anything besides thugs in hilarious masks chasing a woman around a dilapidated industrial park for 15 minutes? That depends on how you feel about secret martial arts sects whose disciples mark their new status by branding themselves with a smoking hot iron. Members of the Order of the Panthers are subject to vigorous training, zen mastery of the self, and a highly stringent code of ethical behavior. Did we mention burning themselves with a fucking iron? I've done some weird stuff to fit in, but that's on another level.
As evidenced by recent graduates Linda Anderson (Megier) and Jason Blade (Stazak) the Panthers are also fond of high-waisted pants and obnoxious sunglasses. Introduced into the sect by Linda’s law enforcement father, William (Stanton), the pair immediately dives into the world of covert operations by conducting surveillance on a drug deal. Unfortunately, the deal goes all kinds of bad and their involvement raises the suspicions of a Perth crimelord named Zukor (Carman). Blade is forced to retreat into the background while Linda is pursued by Zukor’s hoodlums, led by the sleazy but well-dressed Baxter (Richards).
Before long, Blade has no choice but to infiltrate Zukor’s gang to right the wrongs. The authorities have no choice but to tail this rogue agent with bumbling detectives, because if there’s one element every martial arts movie needs, it’s painfully unfunny pursuit scenarios with middle-aged actors. After Blade beats the shit out of some of his employees at a marina while looking for work, and later shows up at his yacht without warning, Zukor takes a liking to the young upstart. I took virtually the same route to land my first job in the financial services industry.
Answering the bell as our fresh-faced, Miami Vice-aping hero is Edward John Stazak as Jason Blade. He’s 50% lothario, 20% Richard Norton wannabe, and 30% sportsjackets. When he’s not rocking a tight-fitting blazer, he’s swimming. When he’s not swimming, he’s at William’s gym, but isn’t wearing a tight-fitting blazer. Are you getting all this? He’s supposed to be really slick or something. His personality is so magnetic that during their first meeting, William’s foxy niece, Gemma (Jefferson) puts on a seductive dance routine for Blade in the gym. It’s set to music blaring from a boombox. She just can’t help herself!
The film is chock-full of fight film cliches -- an overly intercut climax, broken halves of a broom handle as weapon, to name a couple -- but Trenchard-Smith’s deft direction and penchant for visual quirks give the action scenes creative heft despite the humdrum fight choreography. Angles are carefully selected, the fights are given visual room to breathe, and shots are well-composed. Stazak acquits himself rather well during these scenes, showing flexibility and form in his kicks, and the stuntmen sell for him appropriately. Baxter is a solid counterpart as well; he has virtually the same blazer fetish, but also carries physical menace. Despite the logical build of tension between these characters, however, their climactic fight didn’t quite scratch the itches.
At the end of the day, there is so much that is right with this film on paper: the admirable action direction, the 1980s fashion, the weird Halloween masks, the obsession with physical fitness at the height of aerobics craze, and a completely unnecessary backstory about a secret sect of Australian martial artists training in Hong Kong. It’s (almost) all there. Unfortunately, the narrative waffles a lot. The cops trailing Blade added nothing and Zukor was stereotypical villainfiller. Worst of all, Stazak’s version of Blade isn’t nearly as charismatic or cool as the characters around him would lead us to believe.
Due to my prior exposure to the work of Brian Trenchard-Smith, my expectations for Day of the Panther ran rather high. A cheesy 1980s martial arts flick helmed by the dude who did Turkey Shoot, The Man from Hong Kong, and BMX Bandits? A can’t-miss proposition if there ever was one. However, the film gets bogged down in cliches, bad puns, middling comedy, and over-the-top hero worship. Given that a sequel was filmed the same year, presumably the hope was that this would turn into a long-running Jason Blade franchise. Unfortunately, despite his obvious athletic ability and a good look, Stazak seemed stiff and unnatural when trying to play the suave leading man. A bit more seasoning in smaller roles before this one could have done wonders for a film centered on the supposed magnetism of its lead character. Mostly average film with occasional glimmers of fun and weirdness.